Reading Shakespeare—From a Payphone in Delft to King Lear’s Driveway
I am not reading Shakespeare (yet). I’m in Delft, Netherlands, standing on a cobblestone street, facing a cathedral that I’m sure is at least 800 years old. Its steeple looks like it scrapes the blue sky, and I can hear organ music inside. The melody is complicated and powerful, but smooth and gracious in a way that I can’t tell if I’m cold from the early summer day, or the notes coming from the church.
I’m on the phone with my mom, to tell her I’ve made it to the Netherlands safely. It’s a payphone, perhaps one of the last payphones I will ever use, though I don’t know that yet. I’m in awe that I’m hearing her voice across the Atlantic Ocean, in a totally different time zone, standing in a totally different country.
“What do you see?” she asks me, and I do a panoramic with my body to try and take it all in. I don’t hear the organ music anymore, just her voice, and the breeze has for sure picked up. I smell cheese, and I remember I don’t really like cheese. I hear people talking, and I don’t understand a word they are saying. I’m not sure I know how to get back to the hotel Jesse and I are staying in.
“Ummm,” I say, and my voice is shaky, and maybe she can’t tell, or, maybe she can and she knows if she asks what’s wrong that this will only make it worse so she says, “I bet you’re exhausted, and hungry,” and hearing that, I am relieved to feel tired and famished instead of suddenly overwhelmed in a place I know nothing about.
Jesse walks up with a map, and points to a cafe nearby. “There’s coffee,” he whispers to me. I say goodbye to my mom, and follow him to the cafe where we eat crusty baguettes layered with the most delicious cheese I’ve ever had in my life.
At the beginning of the year, Glynn Young, Dave Malone, and I decided we would take on the endeavor of reading everything (or as much as we could) that William Shakespeare ever wrote. We would do this in a year, which meant that we would read about one play (sometimes more), every week. (There were lots and lots of sonnets in April.)
It is Delft that I think of when I try to explain what reading Shakespeare this year has been like. I didn’t understand a word of Dutch, but that didn’t stop me from reveling in the daylight that lasted until well past 10 at night, or the streams that ran through every street with quaint bridges to cross over them, or the bike rides Jesse and I took to shops and museums and cafes and to just explore a different part of the world for a time. And in fact, it was these things that helped me feel more connected to the place, as well as be willing to look around and explore.
Tips on Reading Shakespeare
If I were to offer a tip on reading Shakespeare in a year, I’d suggest being less concerned about “getting” all the bard wrote, and paying attention to what strikes or triggers you, what you enjoy, what makes you sad or scared or mad, what confuses you. I find that reading this way helps me want to think more deeply about the components of the plot. That is, I begin to care.
I also suggest keeping a notebook and jotting down your thoughts and feelings, no matter how fragmented they are. I’ve been doing this since Dave, Glynn, and I began to read, and it’s entertaining to re-read my reactions to what I’ve read.
Recently, I finished reading King Lear, and I can’t say I cared much about him right off the bat. In one of my earlier journal entries I wrote,
Here’s the first sign Lear’s driveway doesn’t seem to make it all the way to the street: He tells his three daughters he has all this land and they can have a portion of it as long as they can tell him how much they love him and how great he is. WHO DOES THAT? Two of his daughters oblige, but Cordelia says this: “I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth.” In other words, “Dad, how do I express my love for you? Where do I begin?” Obviously, Shakespeare does it better, using that great action verb, “heave,” and giving us the image of a heart in a mouth. I know exactly what that’s like when feelings are so big it is as if expressing them is equal to heaving them out of my body. It bothers me that a father would make such a request.
As the play progressed, I started to empathize with King Lear a bit more, and in a more vulnerable entry, I wrote,
Surely being King leaves an imprint on one’s soul—on one’s essence—that is felt when the crown is removed. Maybe Lear’s insistence that his daughters count the ways they adore him was actually a plea—tell me I did an OK job as father and king. Tell me I am loved in this next phase of my life. Tell me something new and wonderful will emerge from me now.
I finished reading the play in a coffeeshop on a Sunday afternoon, in a bit of a rush because I had to pick up my daughter from a baseball practice, so I was surprised to cry at the ending, especially since I knew there was so much of the play that was lost on me. But by the time Lear tells Cordelia they’ll “take upon the mystery of things,” just before the two go off to jail, I felt my face twitch with the twinge of tears that I knew were forming.
“No more tragedy,” I wrote in my journal. “Bring on Much Ado!”
But it was Edgar’s last lines that gave me a clue as to why Shakespeare believed tragedy was not only important, but studying it, sitting with it, might change how we live out the rest of our days.
“The weight of this sad time we must obey,” he says. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” I take this to mean we must bear the sadness of the story, and allow ourselves to be affected by what happened. Not as a warning, but as a way to practice empathy so that when we return to our own lives, we will see them as new countries with treasures waiting to be found, and not as something to understand.
We will arrive again to our lives and take upon the mystery of things.
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.